Colleen D’Andrea and fellow students at Texas State University’s Catholic Student Center want to be bearers of Christ’s image — so they can set their campus on fire.
Inspired, some say, by grace from the Jubilee Year and at the same time disillusioned with the secular culture, a growing number of college students across the country now share D’Andrea’s vision for bringing Christ and his Church to their peers.
This month, more than 160 students and campus ministry leaders from 27 U.S. colleges and universities are spending two intense weeks at the School of the New Evangelization at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., receiving spiritual, intellectual and handson training designed to prepare them for their mission field: their own campuses.
Grounded in the Church’s vision for the New Evangelization, the School of the New Evangelization teaches a model for sharing faith through relationships and community life — a model that participants live out during the program.
The School of the New Evangelization is a program of Saint Paul’s Outreach and is co-sponsored by the St. Paul Seminary, both located in Minnesota. Saint Paul’s Outreach is a Catholic ministry that has chapters on 15 campuses in five states.
“It’s a whole environment of learning and praying and training together, studying together, recreating together,” said Brian Fischer, national mission director for St. Paul’s Outreach. “For two weeks, these university students descend upon this one location and a community is instantly formed as a training ground. It’s an environment that fosters the awakening and strengthening of mature faith.”
St. Paul’s Outreach seeks to evangelize students, bring them to maturity and train them to be leaders, according to Gordy DeMarais, founder and executive director. During the past 25 years, Saint Paul’s Outreach has helped more than 25,000 students and young adults to grow in their faith and has trained nearly 1,500 young missionaries.
While Saint Paul’s Outreach has been training missionaries locally since it began, it started the School of the New Evangelization six years ago to open up this training to increasing numbers of students and leaders around the country interested in campus outreach, said DeMarais, who attributes the program’s growth to the Holy Spirit.
From a Catholic Perspective
The result is a program that benefits the entire Church, according to Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. “The School of the New Evangelization offers clergy, religious and lay faithful alike a wonderful opportunity to be better prepared to go into the world as witnesses of Jesus Christ,” he said. “Not only does the SNE program offer a solid theological grounding in the sacred Scriptures and Catholic Tradition, it affords the participants with many good practical ideas and successful strategies for evangelizing.”
Critics may question the need to evangelize baptized Catholics. However, the School of the New Evangelization finds its inspiration in recent popes’ call for a New Evangelization or “re-evangelization” of Catholics. In his encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi, Pope Paul VI defines evangelization as a “complex process” complete only when one is a mature Christian participating in the Church’s evangelizing mission. Many young Catholics need basic Christian conversion because they lack Catholic formation, DeMarais said.
Evangelization is an integral component of our vocation as Christians, said Bishop Piché, adding that the need for it is great at a time when many young people hunger for truth and love that they’re not finding in the hedonistic and materialistic culture.
This hunger reflects a broader sociological phenomenon, said Father Erich Rutten, University of St. Thomas campus ministry director. “There’s a desire within a lot of young people for something more transcendent, something more solid. Everything changes so quickly, and they’re constantly being marketed to. They’re looking for something eternal. They’re looking for a tradition that has gone back thousands of years. … And they’re looking for love, for the sense of a God who cares for them in the midst of the challenges.”
Training for Mission
In a community environment rooted in prayer and the sacraments, School of the New Evangelization students learn the New Evangelization and how to bring it to campus. Depending on their experience, students take courses that focus on deepening their relationship with Christ, training for mission work or training to lead such work. Topics include fundamentals of Catholic faith, identity and sexual morality for Christian men and women, as well as effective relational evangelization techniques.
Last year D’Andrea, a senior majoring in communication disorders, brought back from her first year at the School of the New Evangelization the basics for starting a Catholic evangelistic outreach at her San Marcos, Texas, campus. This year, she’s attending again with six members of her outreach team to learn, among other aspects of evangelization, how to fully establish small groups on her campus.
Not only did the School of the New Evangelization help the team reach out to students, it helped D’Andrea grow in faith personally, she said. “A lot happened in one year,” she said. “God’s been very faithful in everything. I was nervous at first because I was like, ‘How’s all this going to happen?’ God has really showed me that he is a faithful God, and he can do anything if you just let him do it.”
Gaining more confidence to share the Gospel and learning to trust that God will work through all his evangelization efforts are among the reasons that Doug Russell is returning to the School of the New Evangelization for his fourth year. His biggest reason, however, is the school community’s support, which strengthens him for the entire year, said Russell, who recently graduated from Ohio State University with an agricultural business degree and will work as a full-time Saint Paul’s Outreach missionary at the Columbus, Ohio-based campus this school year.
The School of the New Evangelization’s fruits are found in participants’ lives — on campus and after. “It’s not just a matter of fostering a profound faith experience,” DeMarais said. “That’s important. But it can’t stop there. We have to be able to take that faith that comes alive and destine those young people’s lives in such a way that we have them become mature, that we build a solid foundation, so that they live a whole life of service to the Lord.”
According to Russell, that life of service depends upon each missionary’s personal love of the Lord. “I think at SNE you definitely learn some tactics on how to share the Gospel with college students, but I think you also learn really important principles of sharing the Gospel that you can apply to anyone,” he said. “No. 1, it comes from the heart, and it comes from your personal love for Christ — and that’s what’s actually most effective.”
Susan Klemond writes
from St. Paul, Minnesota.